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Mesoamerican Healers

Brad R. Huber
Alan R. Sandstrom
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    Mesoamerican Healers
    Book Description:

    Healing practices in Mesoamerica span a wide range, from traditional folk medicine with roots reaching back into the prehispanic era to westernized biomedicine. These sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing practices have attracted attention from researchers and the public alike, as interest in alternative medicine and holistic healing continues to grow.

    Responding to this interest, the essays in this book offer a comprehensive, state-of-the-art survey of Mesoamerican healers and medical practices in Mexico and Guatemala. The first two essays describe the work of prehispanic and colonial healers and show how their roles changed over time. The remaining essays look at contemporary healers, including bonesetters, curers, midwives, nurses, physicians, social workers, and spiritualists. Using a variety of theoretical approaches, the authors examine such topics as the intersection of gender and curing, the recruitment of healers and their training, healers' compensation and workload, types of illnesses treated and recommended treatments, conceptual models used in diagnosis and treatment, and the relationships among healers and between indigenous healers and medical and political authorities.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79796-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Bernard Ortiz de Montellano

    As a nation, we spend billions of dollars on unproven nostrums, nonexistent ‘‘energies,’’ and various therapeutic touches and massages. The Federal Drug Administration has been rendered impotent by the thinly disguised subterfuge of labeling these substances as ‘‘food supplements.’’ These remedies are legitimized by pseudoscientific claims for ‘‘quantum healing’’ or ‘‘hydrinos,’’ or by ultra-relativistic postmodernist claims that ‘‘all theories are equally valid’’ or that scientific evidence is not relevant because ‘‘there are different ways of knowing.’’ The result is that ‘‘natural’’ or ‘‘alternative’’ methods and remedies are held to be superior to those of Western biomedicine, which is accused of...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)
    Brad R. Huber

    Mesoamerican healers are captivating people to watch at work, assist, listen to, read about, and study. Anthropologists have been fascinated with them for well over fifty years. Many outstanding ethnographers (e.g., Bennett and Zingg 1986; Bunzel 1952; La Farge and Byers 1931; Nutini 1968; Oakes 1969; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934; Vogt 1969b; Wagley 1949; Wisdom 1940) have provided important information about Mesoamerican healers as part of a more general discussion of the life cycle, occupational specialization, religion, or culture change. And a fairly large number of scholars have published books and articles that have as their main focus one...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Curers and Their Cures in Colonial New Spain and Guatemala: The Spanish Component
    (pp. 19-46)
    Luz María Hernández Sáenz and George M. Foster

    At the time of the discovery and conquest of the New World, European medicine was basically classical Greek humoral pathology, as set forth in theHippocratic corpus(fifth century B.C.), systematized by Galen (second century A.D.), and augmented and codified in Persia (sixth and seventh centuries) and in Baghdad (ninth to eleventh centuries) by Moslem scholars such as Rhazes, Haly Abbas, and Avicenna (980–1037), whoseCanon of Medicineis considered to be the definitive statement of Greco-Persian-Arab medicine.

    The Greeks believed the four humors were fluids that freely circulated through the body’s more solid tissues. Each of the humors...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Curanderismo in Mexico and Guatemala: Its Historical Evolution from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 47-65)
    Carlos Viesca Treviño

    Traditional medicine in Mesoamerica is based upon knowledge and practices that originate from systems of thought and worldviews that are different from those of the West. This knowledge and these practices both derive from and provide the rationale for the daily activities of professional healers. These professionals vary in their characteristics from culture to culture, but throughout the ancient lands of Mesoamerica they are known ascuranderos. The word ‘‘curandero’’ does not have a precise meaning. It refers to an individual’s role as a healer while at the same time implying that this individual is not a medical doctor in...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Central and North Mexican Shamans
    (pp. 66-94)
    James W. Dow

    The definition of ‘‘shaman’’ is far from precise. Some people argue that there are many types of shamans. Lipp (see Chapter 5) examines some of these arguments. It is a vast subject, but, in order to identify the people that it examines, this chapter needs only to define shamans in the context of Mexican cultures. One simple way of defining shamans is by what they do. In general, shamans are healers who specialize in symbolic healing, effects of the mind on the body. The primary tool of Mexican shamans is magical ritual. However, every magical healer in Mexico is not...

  9. CHAPTER 5 A Comparative Analysis of Southern Mexican and Guatemalan Shamans
    (pp. 95-116)
    Frank J. Lipp

    In Mexico it is estimated that fifteen to twenty million of the inhabitants utilize traditional medicine and the services of its 180,000 practitioners (Lagarriga 1978a: 56; Schendel 1968: 144). Although homeopathy, herbalism, hydrotherapy, and other forms of alternative medicine are an integral part of health behavior in Mesoamerican urban centers, traditional medicine, having its syncretic roots in pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial culture, is more prevalent in the rural hinterlands (Barba de Piña Chan 1980).

    In order to arrive at a better understanding of traditional medicine in Mesoamerica, this chapter analyzes and compares the traditional medical practitioners working among the indigenous...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Mistress of Lo Espiritual
    (pp. 117-138)
    Kaja Finkler

    There was a time when it was believed that as biomedical knowledge advanced and became more and more successful in treating human ills, alternative healers would disappear. Biomedicine has indeed acquired an exquisite understanding of anatomy and physiology. It has developed spectacular techniques in organ transplantation, in saving human life under numerous emergencies, and in various forms of in vitro fertilization, as well as demonstrating many other achievements at which we unceasingly marvel. Yet paradoxically, alternative healing systems, with their simple technologies and in many instances religious underpinnings, have flourished, rather than disappeared. Moreover, whereas traditional healers used to be...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Recruitment, Training, and Practice of Indigenous Midwives: From the Mexico–United States Border to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec
    (pp. 139-178)
    Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom

    The authors¹ of this chapter undertake a comparative study of indigenous midwives living in seven subregions in Mexico that extend from the United States border to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Considerable variability exists in the geographic distribution of midwives, their medical and ritual roles, methods of recruitment and training, and in the manner in which midwives interact with other medical personnel and government organizations. A significant portion of this variability is correlated with ecological and demographic factors.

    The most comprehensive publication on indigenous Mexican midwifery is a three-volume book by Mellado Campos et al. (1994). This source and those listed...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Maya Midwives of Southern Mexico and Guatemala
    (pp. 179-210)
    Sheila Cosminsky

    Midwives are one of the most important types of healers and specialists in Mesoamerica today. They still deliver the majority of births in most communities in the region (over 95 percent in some villages). The use of the midwife is greater in rural than urban areas and among indigenous thanladinaor nonindigenous women, yet midwives still serve a substantial number of urban andladinawomen (Acevedo and Hurtado 1997: 271;Freyermuth 1993). This chapter presents a comparative analysis of midwives in southern Mesoamerica, focusing on the indigenous Mayan groups of Guatemala, Chiapas, and the Yucatan. It addresses the following questions:...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Relations between Government Health Workers and Traditional Midwives in Guatemala
    (pp. 211-242)
    Elena Hurtado and Eugenia Sáenz de Tejada

    Nearly half of Guatemala’s 10.8 million inhabitants have limited access to government health services. A history of social inequity, geographic isolation, and institutional inefficiency, plus decades of political conflict, have combined to produce a low level of preventive and curative services, especially to rural indigenous populations. Despite the network of hospitals, health posts, and centers, official public health services have too few personnel and experience chronic shortages of equipment, medicine, and supplies. Moreover, health services follow a Western, highly medicalized model of facility-based delivery without sufficient regard for the local cultural context and the needs of the impoverished indigenous populations,...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Mesoamerican Bonesetters
    (pp. 243-269)
    Benjamin D. Paul and Clancy McMahon

    Broken bones and dislocations are part of the hazards of life in native Mesoamerican communities, where the terrain is often rough and paths are steep, and where pickers can fall from fruit trees or builders from roofs of houses under construction. Among the debilitating physical problems that may beset an individual, these injuries are perhaps the most easily recognized and understood, with the occurrence of damaging physical force and the resulting pain and impediment often clearly connected. However, appropriate methods for treating bone injuries are not common knowledge, and for this reason medical specialists concerned with this type of healing...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Mexican Physicians, Nurses, and Social Workers
    (pp. 270-306)
    Margaret E. Harrison

    ‘‘The health sector is an important part of [any] economy: employing huge numbers of workers, absorbing relatively large amounts of national resources’’ (Walt 1994: 5), and contributing to the development of a healthy population. This chapter focuses on the biomedical health system of Mexico, with specific reference to the deployment and utilization of human resources. The three medical professions that form the basis of this study are physicians, nurses, and social workers. Together these professions are essential to the effective and efficient delivery of health care services. While each profession is important, I present a more detailed analysis of physicians...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Mesoamerican Healers and Medical Anthropology: Summary and Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 307-330)
    Alan R. Sandstrom

    Taken as a whole, medical healers and healing practices in Mesoamerica are products of a complex array of influences ranging from Native American traditions to beliefs and practices originating in Africa, ancient Greece and Persia, Arab and Spanish civilization, and Europe and the United States, as well as the modern biomedical system. Just as in Europe and the United States, many people in the Mesoamerican culture area seek relief from physical or mental ‘‘dis-ease’’ by embracing what has come to be known as alternative medicine, that is, medicine outside of the modern Western biomedical system. In fact, it might be...

  17. Glossary
    (pp. 331-334)
  18. References Cited
    (pp. 335-384)
  19. Contributors to the Volume
    (pp. 385-388)
  20. Index
    (pp. 389-404)